March 25, 2012                                    David Timbs    (Melbourne)                                       David's previous articles   


50 Years on: Renewal or Retreat?

Catholics are nowadays hearing from both the Pope and local bishops calls for a profound, interior spiritual renewal. There is nothing intrinsically new in this as it is the permanent invitation of Christ’s Gospel: repent and believe in the Good News, ever old and ever new.

Pope Benedict XVI, following the lead from his predecessors such as Pius XII and John Paul II, has been urging Catholics to re-discover the sense of sin and a renewed urgency to restore and build up right relationship with God. In his letter Porta Fidei of October 2011, Benedict announced a Year of Faith during which the Church will mark and celebrate the fiftieth
anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962. He wrote to the Bishops of the world,

Reflection on the faith will have to be intensified so as to help all believers in Christ to acquire a more conscious and vigorous adherence to the Gospel, especially at a time of profound change such as humanity is currently experiencing. PF, # 6.

While Benedict acknowledges that humanity is facing almost unprecedented challenges and deep social, economic and political changes, he clearly believes that the Church’s best response to a rapidly changing and often hostile world lies in Catholics experiencing a deep spiritual renewal. The forces of erosive secular relativism will only be challenged and defeated by a greater power emanating from collective inner conversion and spiritual renewal. Given the dire existential state of the Church today this bears examination.

Even in the face of charges, internal and external of the Church’s own blatant and sinful hubris, dissembling, institutional corruption and moral relativism, Benedict’s response is to deny and refuse the suggestion, even demands, that the Church undergo a profound change in the way it identifies as a structure, evaluates itself and the way it governs. Benedict’s response suggests just how distant he is from understanding the seriousness of the Church’s problems and what happens when the apologia of the faith is reduced to the reactive ideological and poorly planned counter attack,

Hildegard (of Bingen) especially opposed the German Cathar movement. The Cathars - their name literally means ‘pure’ – supported radical reform…of the Church, principally to combat clerical abuses. She reprimanded them fiercely, accusing them of wanting to subvert the very nature of the Church and reminding them that the true renewal of the ecclesial community is not obtained by changing structures so much as by a sincere spirit of penance and a fruitful journey of conversion. This is a message we must never forget. – General Audience, 10/09/10.

Nor should we forget the word of Benedict’s itinerant echo, Fr Robert Barron, in a recent interview with religion journalist/editor Barney Zwartz,

The way forward…is back to the basics, simplicity, works of mercy, prayer and poverty, to faith, hope and love. … We should be looking right now for the saints who pop up in times of crisis, as saints like Francis, Dominic, Benedict and Ignatius did.The Age, 06/03/12.

Benedict’s idea of profound ecclesial structural reform, however, extends beyond Hildegard in the twelfth century.  The reform which really counts for Benedict was that of Gregory VII in the eleventh century and given a modern makeover at Trent and Vat I. In that perspective, it is quite clear that Vat II does not rate much more than a Twentieth Century reaffirmation of the past and with nothing profoundly important to say or to affirm even about a new vision. In an affirmation of the immutability of the ecclesial structure and doctrine Benedict recently told the twenty two new Cardinals that the leaders of the Church have no real authority to alter substantially any more than what has already been given, mandated and accomplished.

In preparation for the Year of Faith Benedict charged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to draw up a programme for the whole Church to follow. He was quite explicit and normative in his instructions. He wanted the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be the primary interpretative lens through which Vat II would be viewed and evaluated. Just to demonstrate his continuity with his beatified predecessor, he cites John Paul II as validation of his own Magisterium,

This Catechism will make a very strong contribution to the work of renewing the whole life of the Church. I declare it to be a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith. PF, #11.

What Benedict commissioned in Porta Fidei, Cardinal Levada and the CDF special committee dutifully delivered in its Nota which outlines the programme for the coming Year of Faith. It focuses on the renewal of ecclesial life and faith specifically by means of a renewed, updated apologetics and intensive indoctrination.  

With the gradual rejection of the notion of the People of God, a central motif for ecclesial identity in Vat II, John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger systematically dismantled the authority of the local churches, episcopal conferences and any real notions of subsidiarity. With their regressively authoritarian and centralised pontifical and curial governance, the Church has been monumentally betrayed and demoralised. The catalogue of catastrophes, culpable failures and the totalitarian pontificates of both JP II and Benedict XVI may go on the record as marking the years from 1978 to the present as the greatest disaster period in the history of the Catholic Church. They have not only caused regression from Vatican II, they are both probably guilty of grave material non-reception of that Council.

And now Benedict and the Curia, to mask the disaster, have generated what might well be perceived to be a spiritual smoke screen to blur out the spectacle of a Church left little more than a shell. When faced with a catastrophe, they give the faithful a Catechism……….

Ironically, just five days after his election, John XXIII was thoroughly convinced that not only was the world itself facing critical challenges and an unchartered future but that the Church, to gain evangelical traction and present a credible identity, had to expose itself to similarly risky challenges and plot its own course in troubled waters. He confided in his private secretary, Don Loris Capovilla, that something urgent had to be done in, with and for the Church, On my table pour a lot of problems, questions and concerns. It would take something new and singular, not just a Holy Year.

The Catholic Church got four holy years in succession, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Another is desperately needed but it won’t happen as long as there is instead an insistence on the need for hurriedly manufactured collective spiritual renewal to the exclusion and refusal of fundamental and systemic ecclesial reform.

If, in the view of the Pope and the Roman Curia, the key to profound renewal in the Catholic Church is to be sought in the Catechism, perhaps the local Churches might employ some more imaginative and enduringly effective means to re-energise the People of God.

For a national celebration of Vat II’s fiftieth anniversary, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has launched a Year of Grace – actually eighteen months beginning this Pentecost and overlapping the Year of Faith. So far the actual details are rather vague. In the promotional video, a number of Bishops repeat a theme similar to that of the Vatican’s Year of Faith: that it will be a time of deep reflection and personal renewal; that it will be a kind of community retreat; a time to step back from the ordinary and regroup. One bishop even suggested that there was no set programme but a thousand opportunities offered themselves.

Probably the most interesting, tantalising and challenging of these is that the Year of Grace will offer Australian Catholics the opportunity to contemplate the face of Christ and listen to him. Given imaginative structures these themes might just take on the form of tangible and effective mechanisms for ecclesial reform and renewal.  Maybe with feedback from the laity and the presbyterate, soon to meet for the National Council of Priests conference, a greater measure of clarity will emerge and realisable suggestions take shape.

One might even be moved to pray that the Australian Catholic Bishops will see this coming year as a golden opportunity to signal that in the immediate future every diocese in this country will renew the old custom of holding its own canonically established Synod. Maybe then our chief shepherds will have the opportunity to contemplate the face of Christ in their own people and hear their voice as His. At least this would acknowledge the Incarnation and that the Church is a means not an end in the preaching and realisation of the Rule of God. That could be just the evangelical jolt required and provide a real moment of revelation,  a point of conversion and a source of lasting Grace for bishops, priests and their people.

David Timbs writes from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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